On the phone last week from a tour stop in Florida, Widespread Panic's John Bell sounded like a musician no longer surprised by the road.
Asked if his veteran jam-rock band's current three-month outing feels any different from recent tours, the singer and guitarist better known to fans as “JB” felt no need to lie for the sake of a good story.
“No, not really,” Bell said with a chuckle. “You just wake up, get together and then go play. It's been that way for about 30 years.”
Technically, next year is the three-decade anniversary of Widespread Panic, but Bell does not seem to be counting. Instead, the 53-year-old is looking to a near future that includes the release of his group's 12th studio album. (Before then, though, the band will kick off the Pier Six Pavilion season on Sunday and return May 14 for the sold-out “Dear Jerry: Celebrating the Music of Jerry Garcia” concert at Merriweather Post Pavilion.)
It has been nearly five years since the release of the last LP, “Dirty Side Down.” This is the longest break between full-length records for Widespread Panic, which began in Athens, Ga., but Bell barely noticed.
“Shoot, we don't really count the days and the years,” Bell, who now lives in North Carolina with his wife, said. He knows it is time to return to the studio “when you just look at each other and go, 'Yeah, let's go make a record.'”
This past winter, that nonchalant exchange led the six-piece to Echo Mountain Recording Studio in Asheville, N.C., to once again capture its eclectic brand of Southern roots-rock on record.
Faced with a reporter's requests for concrete details surrounding the new record, Bell took a stance somewhere between secretive and aloof. He was asked about the sonic directions it explores, and replied, “Gosh, you know, it's a collection of songs.” Bell confirmed the album is finished, titled and likely to be released this year, but declined to say much more.
An exception came when Bell discussed the recording technique Widespread Panic aimed to minimize most: overdubs, or the process of layering additionally recorded sounds on existing tracks. No matter the genre, many artists record this way for multiple reasons, including convenience and to achieve a fuller sound. For some, the results sound perfect — just as they imagined the song in their heads — while others argue the process sterilizes the music.
To Bell, the stripped-down approach was an attempt to make the finished product sound as close to the original composition as possible.
“You can get a little bogged down in the overdub process,” he said. The hope was to tap into “the quirkiness and one-of-a-kindness you get in letting your first inspiration be and just leave it alone.”
While Bell and his bandmates often consider new directions and endeavors for the band, their purpose is no longer just musical. Widespread Panic's sustained success has opened doors to charitable opportunities the act now incorporates into touring plans. On Sunday, for example, the band-run organization Feeding People Through Music, along with the Maryland Food Bank, will accept money and canned goods onsite. Since 2008, the band says fans have raised more than $96,000 and nearly 13,000 pounds of food across the country.
Contributions of money and food are the end game, but Bell said raising awareness of a problem “not always talked about” is satisfying in its own way.
“When people know how much hunger is out there in the country, that's pretty freaky,” Bell, a Cleveland native, said. “It's one of those things where it takes very little effort on our part, but it still makes a big difference in other people's lives.”
With Widespread Panic's 30th year as a band around the corner, busy touring schedule and new material on the way, Bell knows he is in an enviable position to many, which explains why he ends the interview on such a grateful note.
“I'm incredibly appreciative that folks keep coming out, because if the people weren't there, we'd go back to right where we started — sitting on the edge of the bed, thinking of a song and playing it there,” Bell said. “And that's where it would stay.”